Wasps: Humanity’s Unlikely Friends

A mason wasp on a flower. Photo via www.pexels.com.

It is hardly a secret that wasps are hated. In fact, surveys by Seirian Sumner show that wasps are so universally hated that there is a lack of research on them due to bias by entomologists.  

However, wasps offer innumerable benefits to agricultural, suburban, and urban environments and could offer more if they were treated with more consideration and research. 

Wasps have been researched as biological control agents in agriculture for years, but often the focus is on introducing solitary, non-native wasps such as Ganaspis brasiliensis or Apoanagyrus lopezi that are intended to target specific pests. 

Economically, insects as a biocontrol agent against crop pests are estimated to be worth $417 billion dollars, but this figure notably does not include hunting wasps. 

Research published in the Royal Society Journal in 2019 has shown that social wasps, which includes common yellowjackets and hornets, are effective biocontrol agents against Lepidoptera crop pests. Most importantly they were found to reduce populations of major pests like fall armyworms and cotton worms. 

It is well known that chemical pesticides often have negative impacts on non-target species of insects, so putting further research into wasps as biocontrol agents and using them in integrated pest management is likely to help ease the environmental impacts of agricultural pest control.  

Additionally, the fact that native social wasps have also been found to target major crop pests means there is less reason to introduce a new non-native species that would have potentially unknown impacts in local ecosystems. 

Not only are wasps important in an agricultural context, but they are important predators in people’s homes and neighborhoods as well.  

According to the book “Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect” by Eric R. Eaton, in suburban and urban environments, various wasp species were found to significantly reduce populations of cockroaches, flies, turf grubs, and common garden pests like caterpillars and grasshoppers. 

But wasps’ positive impacts do not just stop at predation; they are also major pollinators. 

Adult wasps often hunt other insects to feed their larvae, but they themselves primarily feed off sugary carbohydrates either from flower nectar or substances secreted by their larvae. 

According to entomologist and behavioral ecologist Seirian Sumner, social wasps particularly were found not to be picky about what flowers they visit as long as they can get nectar, whereas other major pollinators like bees do not visit many common plants’ flowers, such as chrysanthemums or cucumbers.  

Despite this, there is no research assessing the scale at which wasps pollinate compared to other insects like bees and butterflies due to a general bias against wasps by researchers. 

Some major plants are almost exclusively pollinated by wasps, such as orchids and figs. 

In addition to predation and pollination, wasps have been found to perform many other ecological services. Like pollination, the scale is not known due to lack of research, but wasps have been found to disperse seeds, help decompose rotting wood and flesh, and have shown potential to be environmental monitoring tools. 

In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was discovered that wasps’ venom has potent antibiotic and antimicrobial properties which are beneficial to humans. 

More importantly, an article published in the Cell Press Biophysical Journal in 2015 found that mastoparan found in the venom of social wasps has cancer-killing properties.  

While practical application of these medical discoveries is still far away, there is increasing incentive to research these insects further. Wasps have the potential to bring human society incalculable benefits, if only bias against them was cleared.  

Sumner asserts that, like campaigns uplifting bees and butterflies in recent years, positive action and messages about wasps must be spread to combat negative public opinion and encourage research. Her surveys have shown that highlighting the positive impacts wasps have and the services they provide to human society can change minds, making them worthy of conservation and care. 

Cassandra Uchida is a junior Agriculture Crop and Soil Science major, the secretary of the ABAC GSA, and a veteran. They spend a lot of their time studying languages, reading nonfiction, and painting. They hope to work in the field of agroecology and regenerative agriculture.

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